This past week, on July 5 and 7, we upped the ante a bit in my work with Rocky. Part of it was planned, and part of it happened because of my own body.
Let’s talk about the body part first, since that was the first to occur. On Tuesday, when I came to class, I wasn’t doing too well. We’ve had a run of quite a few days now with heat over 100 degrees, and extreme temperatures are one of the triggers for my episodes. I don’t always have full-on paralysis attacks. Sometimes what happens with prolonged exposure to triggers is that I have overall body weakness. I just get wobbly. I have a hard time walking in a straight line, and I need to rest a lot. When that is going on for me, I use a cane to help with balance and support. So on Tuesday, I used my cane in class with Rocky for the first time.
Ripley is, of course, very used to my cane, since I use it almost every time we go out on errands. I bring it as a precaution, because even if I feel strong at the outset of a trip, something might come up while we’re in the middle of a store (fluorescent lights are a trigger) or while eating in a restaurant (certain foods are triggers, and I never know when they will affect me), and then I need support to be able to walk back out of the building. Or any number of other things. You get the idea.
But Rocky had never seen the cane before during training, so I wasn’t sure how she would react. We used to have a little dog named Houla, and she was first adopted from a shelter to be a companion dog for Sabrina’s dad. He was elderly and used a cane. And it turned out she was terrified of canes, for some reason – something from her earlier life. So Sabrina ended up with Houla instead. Since Rocky is also a rescue dog, we really had no idea how she would react.
Luckily, I had nothing to worry about. Rocky acted as if the cane had been there all along. We went through a usual class with no problems. In fact, the only issue we had at all that day was towards the end of the class, when we were working on straight line heels. With this command, I was supposed to give Rocky a heel command, walk three steps, then stop, and she was to sit at my side without being told. Initially she was doing great. Then she began doing all her sits backwards – facing Jared, the trainer!
I scolded her and said, “Ignore him. He’s not important.” He laughed and said, “I know, they all do this. They only pay attention to me, and then later they shift all their attention to their handlers, and forget all about me.”
On Thursday, I returned, thankfully with a bit more pep, and Jared said it was time to advance to movement work. Up to this point, most of the training has been incremental; give a command, stop, next command. That’s important in the beginning, but Rocky has all of this down pat, and she is starting to get bored. Now it was time to put it all together into movement, so I spent almost the entire hour of training walking with Rocky heeling at my side.
We walked in a circle around the training room, and Jared gave me these commands: circle right (turn in a tight circle towards the right and then keep walking in the same direction), circle left, and (drat! can’t remember the exact command! but — ) turn 180 degrees right and begin walking the opposite direction, or turn 180 degrees left and begin walking the opposite direction. Each time Jared gave one of these commands, I would say, “Rocky, heel.” At first, she bumped into me when I turned. But as the class progressed, she began to watch me, and pay attention to which way I was about to turn. Remember when I said in a previous post that Ripley never runs into me, no matter how erratically I walk? That’s what this is teaching. Training Rocky to look at me, focus on what I am doing, so when I change direction, she changes direction, too.
Throughout these exercises, Jared would occasionally call out another command, such as “Sit” or “Down/Stay.” And wherever we were, we would execute that command. Then we would continue with the circle heeling exercise.
Imagine that you’re in the grocery store, walking down an aisle, and you think, “Oh. Right! I need milk, too.” And you suddenly make a U-turn, to go back to another aisle. Or you walk into a restaurant, and find that there is a crowd of people, and you have to make an abrupt stop, and wait for a table. Your service dog needs to be able to react as quickly as you do, turning, stopping, sitting, waiting, then starting up again, without running into you or anyone else, without getting her leash tangled up, always paying attention.
What was fun was seeing the progress – watching Rocky rise to the challenge, listen to my voice, catch my minor corrections, and by the end of the night, become focused on me with her full attention.
We celebrated by collapsing on the floor when we were finished for a well-deserved selfie session, followed by kisses for Sabrina and Ripley.